What To Do When Your Employer Won't Provide a Reference

What do you do when your previous employer refuses to provide a detailed reference? 

It's been a while since I've shared a reader question here so let's see what we can do to help this job-seeker out. She asks, "What am I to do, now that my previous employer refuses to provide a thorough reference? And how can I prevent that from negatively affecting me in the future job search? " 



Previous employers can provide job-related information on past employees to prospective employers provided that it is based on fact and given in good faith (Employment Reference Laws) but that doesn't always happen. A more likely scenario is what my reader describes below:

"They can confirm the dates that I worked with them and what my function at their organization was, but cannot / will not provide any other details or commentary, whether good or bad, about my work performance and other intangibles. This is because they don't want to potentially get sued for falsely representing their former employee. (Apparently that's a thing.)"

Yes, that is a thing and I am not going to riff and rant on the pros and cons of employers liability in providing references because I've been on both sides of the employer/employee coin and that will not help my reader out.

Not being able to get any information at all from a previous employer can potentially be a red flag but here are a few ideas: 

  • Try reaching out to your former manager(s) directly or asking them for a written letter of reference. Managers are often very willing to provide a recommendation for their performing employees.
  • Offer to provide prospective employers copies of your most recent performance reviews. What companies are uncomfortable sharing over the phone, they often put in writing at the end of each performance year.
  • Did you work with community partners or members of other organizations in your role with your previous employer? Perhaps they would comment about your work performance and professional interactions with them.

What ideas do you have for job seekers when their employers won't provide a reference? What has worked for you?

Good Hires Don't Just Happen

Every job has it's ups and downs and the downs are less frequent when you surround yourself with good people. I am pulling from the archives to remind us all that good hires don't just happen. You have to do the work.



I recall an interaction I had with a hiring manager as a young HR professional:

Me: You have to check references.

Hiring Manager: Why? He did great in the interview.

Me: Because, you have to.

Hiring Manager: No, I don't.

Me: Yes, you do. You have to know who you are hiring.

Hiring Manager: I do know who I am hiring. His name is Joe and he's a rock star.

Turns out, the hiring manager did not know Joe like he thought he knew Joe and Joe was more rock than star. Instead of an, "I told you so," as I walked the rock star out the door, the hiring manager received a not-open-for-discussion, "reference checks required."

In hindsight, I would have gotten my point across better with the hiring manager if I had taken the time to teach vs. tell but hey, I was young. I was HR.

If I were to do it again, I would share what Gilt Groupe's CEO, Kevin Ryan said about reference checks in his Harvard Business Review article, Building a Team of A Players:

"The hiring process typically has three elements: the resume, the interview and the reference check. Most managers overvalue the resume and interview and undervalue the reference check. References matter most. . . . when someone does not succeed in a job, it's generally not for lack of technical skills - it's because of intangibles that don't come up in an interview. Is he attentive to detail? Does she work well with others? How does he treat his colleagues? References are the only way to learn these things."

You don't spend $1.59 on a dozen eggs without checking each and every egg ('fess up) so how could you hire an employee for your organization without checking him for cracks?

I've griped about reference checks, too. Each time I silenced the little voice that was trying to tell me, "no," or said I said something like, "I am self-aware and a great judge of character" it backfired on me and I made a hire I later regretted.

Guess what? I am not as good a judge of the intangibles as I think I am and neither are you. Reference checks required.

Do the work. Make good hires. It's worth it.